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5 key points to choose Raw or JPEG

Digital cameras especially DSLR offer two file formats which are RAW and JPEG.  If your camera has these options, you may have a question “which one is better?” Asking photographers either they are professional or not can have no answer at all. Some say USE RAW! And some say USE JPEG!

What are they actually? RAW is basically the digital negatives. So, it is an unprocessed and uncompressed file, and it contains all the details and information such as white balance value, exposure, highlight, shadow etc. On the other hand, JPEG is a processed and compressed file, and some details and information are lost. However, the lost in details can be too little to be noticed. So again, which one is better? Lets make a few comparisons before we come to the conclusion.

1. Post processing

I believe this is the primary reason why you should use one over the another. Since RAW is unprocessed, you need to process it yourself through certain software such as Photoshop and Lightroom in order to produce JPEG. On the other hand, JPEG is already processed, in which the camera does the processing itself to convert RAW to JPEG. So, you may do whatever you want with the JPEGs that you captured like uploading to to facebook, flicker or printing. So, do you like to edit your photos? If no, then just use JPEG.

If yes, it can be either RAW or JPEG. If you want to edit your photos, you need to know the level of the editing process. Will you do major or just minor adjustment to your photos? Actually, it is not hard to know whether it’s going to be major or simple. When you go shooting, do you find it easy to determine the correct exposure and white balance? If it is hard, then major it is.

If you do major adjustment, then go for RAW because RAW provides flexibility in post processing since it contains every information and details. Shooting in RAW is like shooting with no worries. Although your photos may not be perfect, you can do adjustment later during post processing.

Well, it doesn’t mean that shooting in JPEG make you worry. If you are confident that the exposure and white balance is correct, then you may need a little tweaking to make the photos perfect!

2. Purpose of Photography

The difference in photography type is actually the reason some photographers favour RAW over JPEG or vice versa.

RAW is very popular among Landscape photographers. Since landscape photos contain a lot of things, capturing all the details are crucial. This is particularly evident to recover highlight/shadow clipping because cameras might discard them when it produces JPEG. Besides that, landscape scenes frequently have different level of exposure which make getting the right exposure can be somehow difficult. Anyway, landscape and post processing cannot be separated therefore shooting in RAW is recommended.

Go for RAW if you will ever do something big and post processing is a must, like getting into a photography competition or something that is important to you. You find dealing with exposure and colour correction much easier.

On the other hand, JPEG is popular with photojournalist and sports photographers. This is because fast shutter speed and continuous burst mode are used. Using RAW for this purpose may slow things down because RAW takes too long to be recorded in the card. For them, time is very valuable and waiting for RAW to be recorded can miss some great moments! For some photographers who do events, time is too short to edit all the photos to submit before the dateline.

3. Memory card

Here is another point to choose either RAW or JPEG. This is a fact. RAW consumes more space than JPEG. Large RAW can take up to 14 Mb per file while large JPEG can take up to 5 Mb.

So, the size of your memory card should be your consideration. You also need to estimate the amount of photos that you will be taking before transferring the files to your computer or external hard disc. Lets say, if you are on holiday and you are afraid that the card might be full, shooting in JPEG is recommended because more images can be captured. If you are hired to photograph events or actions, you might end up with thousands photos. Shooting in JPEG is way much safer to avoid any space insufficiency.

Well, limited space on your card is not a big deal if you only go for photo outing for a day or you only take few photos for the day. Shooting in RAW or JPEG works fine. So suit yourself.

Other than that, writing RAW into the card takes longer than JPEG. This is evident when you use continuous shooting mode. So, are you okay with waiting? Go for JPEG if you are afraid you might lose some great shots.

4. Perfection Vs Imperfection

Here’s another deal. RAW is always regarded as ‘perfect’ while JPEG is ‘not perfect’. This perfection term is given because RAW contains every single information in your shots while JPEG does eliminate ‘bad’ information in your shots. So, RAW suits to anyone who wants to produce their photos at the maximum level. Well, the word ‘maximum’ is subjective to each person and it is better to say that RAW is best for anyone who wish to be in a safe zone. Other than that, since RAW can only be produced by your camera, this can be considered as an evidence to prove copyright of your images.

Another claim is that you lose more information each time you edit JPEG. This is completely wrong. The originality of RAW is retained because RAW is saved as a new JPEG file each time you process it. You can do the same to JPEG as well. There is an option ‘Save As’ so, use it to make a new JPEG file by saving it in a new folder or using another name. By doing this, you do not rewrite the original JPEG therefore its quality is retained.

Although JPEG has lost some information in it, the image quality is not bad either. Some people clarify that JPEG has low contrast and sharpness. Actually, every camera models have their own algorithm to process RAW to JPEG and this algorithm improves in newer models and the resulted JPEG can be impressive. In other words, different cameras and lenses give different results. So, working with JPEG can be no problem and it is true.

5. Compatibility

This is quite a minor issue but has a potential to be big in the future. JPEG is a universal format and this kind of file can be read by any kind of  software in the world. So, JPEG won’t have any compatibility issues with any new software in the next few years.

RAW on the other hand, is not a file format. For Canon cameras, RAW format is CR2 while for Nikon is NEF. Camera manufacturers haven’t really decided the standard format for RAW. So in the next few years (it could be 5, 10 or more), the newest software might not be able to read your RAW file. A new open source RAW format has been developed by Adobe and it is called DNG (Digital Negative). DNG however hasn’t been used widely yet. Lightroom program do provide the tool the convert the current RAW files into DNG format. So, we can expect camera manufacturers to use this format in the future.

Bottom line

Here’s my advice. Clearly you need to know your photography style so you can make the correct decision. To what level do you enjoy post processing?

RAW is for you if you need major adjustment in the post processing and you want to feel safe when taking pictures. If your memory card has big space, go for RAW.

JPEG is for you if you don’t like to do post processing and you want to instantly share your photos to social media. JPEG is for you if time is your primary concern. You don’t have much time to do post processing and you need to use continuous shooting mode. If you need to take a lot of photos, go for JPEG.

If you can’t make up your mind yet, my suggestion is you try JPEG first. If you are not satisfied with the image quality, then go for RAW. Else, try RAW + JPEG. Then, you can decide which format is more comfortable for you.

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